Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Loneliest Hedge Witch

Morrigan is terrifying, cold, cruel, and yet, oddly lovable. She doesn't care
what you think. Except, of course, when she does. And it's heartbreaking.
Morrigan: My mother's stories curdled my blood and haunted my dreams. No little girl wants to hear about the Wilder men her mother took to her bed, using them till they were spent, then killing them. No little girl wants to be told that this is also expected of her, once she comes of age.
Leliana: I... uh... I see.
Morrigan: No, you don't. You really don't.

SPOILERS for Dragon Age, all three games, as always!

She's cold at first—haughty, rude, and distrustful. She has shaggy, silky black hair, chopped loosely around her face. She can take a variety of shapes but prefers often to fight as a spider, an incarnation of everything female and terrifying. She must certainly have a constant, low-grade temperature, since her everyday attire requires her to basically go topless twenty-four hours per day, and yet she uses this nakedness with casual disdain, like a weapon. Just as her mother, Flemeth, taught her to do.

Meet Morrigan, a complex woman disliked by as many Dragon Age players as those who patently adore her. 

Like Anders, Solas, Loghain and Blackwall, Morrigan is a deeply polarizing character. And I can certainly understand why.

Morrigan's not easy to know—or like. She's cold, cutting, unkind, acerbic, antisocial, and frequently pitiless. She distrusts her companions, as well as curiosity, kindness, gifts, and softness. She's operating on her own hidden agenda. And she, like so many companions in these games, is very often lying to us. And, again, as with those other characters we may adore across the trilogy, the lies have nothing to do with her love for us. She can love us and still absolutely refuse to tell us the truth. She therefore joins everyone from Zevran to Bull to Anders to Solas. Lying is, after all, just another survival skill.

But I admit it... I love her. Thanks to the genius of writer David Gaider, Morrigan's a complex, brittle, vulnerable, and beautifully written character. And best of all, she's voiced with complexity, heart and intelligence by the talented Claudia Black, whose rich, warm voice gives Morrigan the warmth she doesn't always evince visibly. And I love the way writer Gaider and performer Black give Morrigan a distinctive and deliberately Shakespearean vocal pattern. All those 'tises and 'twases are so wonderful and distinctive, both artificial and yet beguiling, the perfect character notes for someone who hides as much of herself as possible. And who may even be attempting to protect herself and her swamp rags with speech that would be acceptable in any court in the land.

It's as if Morrigan grew up in the swamps, but thanks to her terrifying mother's education, she also emerged with a fantastic and regal manner of elocution that would have allowed her to rule the world... from a throne, or from the stage... if she'd just been discovered! Although, now that I think of it, I think Morrigan would have found the entire idea repugnant... even if I think Flemeth would have gotten a kick out of eating hearts from the stage, herself. Let's face it, when it comes to Flemeth, that girl's got a dramatic flair that exceeds the known bounds of Thedas.

Note: I got to see incomparable Flemeth voice actor Kate Mulgrew and the rest of the original cast of the revival of Equus in 2008 on Broadway, including Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths, and it meant so much to me to see Mulgrew, especially, among a peerless cast, as I'd always adored her as an actress. Hearing that warm, purring voice live and in person will always be a theatrical hallmark for me.

But back to our own, prickly Morrigan...

A Dark Yet Vulnerable Heart
Morrigan is a kind of litmus test for how much Dragon Age players are willing
to invest in darker characters. Do we despise her cruelty and take it as-is? Or
do we attempt to affect, understand and change her?

Morrigan's a kind of subtle litmus test for Dragon Age players in many ways, I think. She's not easy. She's not kind. She will many times approve of the cruelest of choices (supporting, for instance, murder or even mass enslavement in the moment).

But, well, that's not all she is. Or even perhaps who she was meant to be. Even in her earliest days with Dragon Age, there's more there to Morrigan than just cruelty and distrust, and that's what makes her so tragic and yet lovable. The cruel-hearted hedge witch may be who she pretends to be at first... but is that who she ends up being? 

Is that who she really is all along?

I don't think so. I think she's more... or can be, depending on whether she has a supportive and high-approval relationship with the Warden. Someone to show her friendship and love, and who gives her the opportunity to look beyond the darkness in her own heart.

The Witch of the Wilds

I adore Flemeth in all her strength, fire and complexity, but as is appropriate to her inner elven evanuris persona, she is both terrifying and wonderful (and there is little in between). More than almost any other character in the series, I think Flemeth is a character who has shown herself to be both changeful and mercurial throughout the decade of events covered by the Dragon Age trilogy, depending on where her gaze was focused.

For instance, in terms of DAO, it's apparent that Morrigan was raised by a Flemeth who was all rage and vengeance, who was hard as stone. I believe the Flemeth of this period was perhaps more immersed in her connection to Mythal than before, and that she was perhaps focused almost to the point of blindness upon the greater events across Thedas (and Solas's upcoming awakening). Imagine growing up as a child in a little hut in a swamp with a woman whose every act was either centered on teaching a brutal lesson or on utterly ignoring your needs so that she could order to see (and "nudge") the great events of the world.

With this in mind, Flemeth raised little Morrigan in almost total isolation, and with an iron hand. Sometimes gentlemen entered that swamp (and Flemeth's bed) and then disappeared. Sometimes Morrigan herself acted as bait, luring the men to be dispatched by Flemeth. There were, apparently, no little moments of softness. No pretty things, no gifts of any kind. To me, it seems apparent that Morrigan was a tool—a knife, an arrow, something deadly and sharp that Flemeth was shaping to be part of her vengeance against men (and, perhaps against the resurgence of the sleeping gods who betrayed Mythal).

Talk about a tough childhood.
Morrigan grew up without love, without a single gift or softness.
It makes me incredibly sad for her. And it also makes me want to
throw things at Flemeth, who I normally adore.
It's interesting to note that just like Morrigan in their own ways, the Circle Mages too lived in a certain isolation and entrapment, and that even though Morrigan was herself a free child and young apostate for many years, she too eventually felt the bars of her cage on occasion as well.

The Wild Child

Yet Morrigan herself felt the occasional yearning for the outside world, just as the Circle Mages did. Take this beautifully written and intensely moving conversation with the Warden in Dragon Age: Origins:
Morrigan: A world full of people and buildings and things was all very foreign to me. If I wished companionship, I ran with the wolves and flew with the birds. If I spoke, it was to the trees.
Such simple pleasures will only enthrall for so long. I recall the first time I crept beyond the edge of the Wilds. I did so in animal form, remaining in the shadows and watching these strange townsfolk from afar. 
I happened upon a noblewoman adorned in sparkling garments the likes of which I had never before seen. I was dazzled. This to me seemed to be what true wealth and beauty must be. I snuck up behind her and stole a hand mirror from the carriage. 'Twas encrusted in gold and crystalline gemstones and I hugged it to my chest with delight as I sped back to the Wilds. 
She was not... Flemeth was furious with me! I was a child and had not yet come into my full power and I had risked discovery for the sake of a pretty bauble. To teach me a lesson, Flemeth took the mirror and smashed it upon the ground. I was heartbroken. 
Beauty and love are fleeting and have no meaning. Survival has meaning. Power has meaning. Without those lessons I would not be here today, as difficult as they might have been.
Perhaps my time in the Wilds was indeed lonely. But such was how it had to be. I find myself wondering at times what might have become of the girl with the beautiful golden mirror, but such fantasies have no place amidst reality.
Ultimately, if we speak to Morrigan frequently in DAO and work to befriend her, it becomes apparent that beneath that hard exterior she's incredibly lonely and insecure. I was so moved, for instance, by the moment when she literally doesn't know how to respond to the Warden simply giving her a gift and not expecting anything in return. Here, when the Warden, remembering her story, gives her a mirror similar to the one Flemeth destroyed so long ago, Morrigan breaks down and is genuinely moved:
Morrigan: What have you there, a mirror? It is just the same as the mirror which Flemeth mashed on the ground so long ago. it is incredible that you found one so like it. I am uncertain what to say. You must wish something in return, certainly.
Warden: It is simply a present.
Morrigan: I have never received a gift. Not one that did not also come with a price attached. But I would be a fool not to accept such a gesture with grace. Your gift is... most thoughtful. Thank you.
Morrigan can absolutely be cruel and pitiless. But she has been created to be
so. If we attempt to support her, surprising depths and revelations will emerge
Again, the revelation that Morrigan has never received a gift in her entire life is enormously touching to me. And it tells us everything about her capacity for cruelty and her ability to choose the dark outcomes... it's what Flemeth had her do her entire life. And it also explains the hard and protective shell she has built around herself, and the occasions on which she chooses cruel outcomes because she feels they are necessary. Morrigan, in a subtle way, it can be argued is ultimately herself a slave, subservient to a greater power forever (and even more so if she drinks from the Well in DAI). I think, or guess, that this is her baseline. Which in turn makes it far more understandable when she sides with slavers. She's simply making the cold choice, going, "I survived slavery, why can't you?" She is typically blind, not seeing what's really involved there beyond grim expediency.

And ultimately, Morrigan's stance on slavers and Dark Rituals and hard choices becomes much easier to understand once you realize she was raised to anticipate such choices, and to always choose such outcomes. To choose the scenarios in which fate might seem cruel but inevitable is written in Morrigan's DNA. However, these traits are also part of a ruthlessness we can, in part, heal, if we provide her with love and companionship.

Finding the Softer Side of Morrigan

I find Morrigan fascinating because she, much like Solas, is utterly not who she appears to be on the surface. On the surface, she's haughty and cool, difficult to approach, and wary. Yet this facade is so easy to crack it's tragic. Beneath the ice is an isolated woman who yearns for connection and fears rejection, even if she has been taught that such closeness is dangerous.

Take this conversation she has with Leliana (which directly leads to the exchange I quoted in the opening above). My favorite part is that Leliana (always searching for genuine connection) actually affects Morrigan enough that she ends the conversation through sheer emotion, to withdraw:
Leliana: Let me ask you this, then, Morrigan. What if there really was a Maker?
Morrigan: Then I would wonder why He has abandoned His creation. It seems terribly irresponsible of Him.
Leliana: He left us because we were determined to make our own way, even if we hurt outselves, and He could not bear to watch.
Morrigan: But how do you know? You cannot ask Him this. Perhaps He has gone to a new creation elsewhere, and abandoned this as a dismal failure, best forgotten.
Leliana: I do not need to know because I have faith. I believe in Him and feel His hope and His love.
Morrigan: "Faith." How quickly those who have no answers invoke that word.
Leliana: How can someone who practices magic have so little capacity to believe in that which she cannot see?
Morrigan: Magic is real. I can touch it and command it and I need no faith for it to fill me up inside. If you are looking for your higher power, there it is. 
Leliana: But only if you can control it. I do not envy the loneliness you must feel at times Morrigan.
Morrigan: I... leave me be. Loneliness would be preferred to this... endless chatter.
Morrigan also has an interesting conversation with Wynne where I thought what she revealed was genuinely fascinating—and surprising. She may pretend disdain and boredom, but she is, at her core, committed to saving the world:
Wynne: In response to your question, I know only that I died once. I do not know how much time I have left... only that it is very little.
Morrigan: That is not so very different from before, surely. You are an old woman. 
Wynne: One who keenly appreciates that our time in this world should be spent doing what is important.
Morrigan: I have always lived by such a philosophy.
Wynne: How reassuring.
I think Wynne misses something here: That Morrigan is serious. Which means that Morrigan thinks being here, right now, fighting alongside her, is important. And I think—I truly do—that she believes and does so beyond her mother's directives.

In DAI, Morrigan is kinder and softer now, more reachable.

The Court Enchanter

I adored Morrigan in DAO, and so was absolutely thrilled when she returned in DAI. She's a wonderful character—tough yet soft, prickly yet approachable. So I was delighted when she arrived near the end of our quest in "Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts" in Dragon Age: Inquisition. And yet, movingly and tragically, even there, she's still so sure she won't be accepted, or that you'll respond with anger when she tells you she's joining the team. Morrigan's vulnerability is once again front and center almost right away, waiting for us to mock at or laugh at her.

In a nutshell, Morrigan's conversations in Dragon Age: Inquisition reflect the vulnerability we once glimpsed in DAO, that fear that, yet again, she will be rejected. When she shows up the first time in "Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts" in Dragon Age: Inquisition, she is both predictably bold yet diffident:
Morrigan: Well, well, what have we here? The leader of the new Inquisition, fabled Herald of the Faith. Delivered from the grasp of the Fade by the hand of Blessed Andraste herself. What could bring such an exalted creature here to the Imperial Court, I wonder? Do even you know?
I am Morrigan. Some call me advisor to the Empress Celene on matters of the arcane. You have been busy this evening. Hunting in every dark corner of the Palace. Perhaps you and I hunt the same prey?
She and the Inky discuss the inherent threats to Celene. And she ends on a decisive and very predictable note that is pure Morrigan: 
There are sharks in the water. And I will not fall prey to them. Not now, not ever.
Then, after the events have landed in the Inquisition's favor:
Morrigan: Do you tire so quickly of their congratulations, Inquisitor? 'Tis most fickle, after all your efforts on their behalf.
Inquisitor: (NOTE: I always choose: "They ran out of punch"): I would have stayed, but the punch ran dry.
Morrigan: Indeed? Let us see if you take this piece of news as poorly (alternate version: "as well"). By Imperial decree, I have been named liaison to the Inquisition. Celene (NOTE: or whoever you backed) wishes to offer you any and all aid—including mine. Congratulations.
She hesitates, visibly, waiting for our reaction.
Inquisitor (after optional discussion on other aspects): Welcome to the Inquisition, Morrigan.
Morrigan: A most gracious response. I shall meet you at Skyhold.
As someone returning from DAO, this conversation always affects me. Morrigan is older, kinder, and softer now, palpably so. Less armor, more reachable. She's more vulnerable, older, afraid of outcomes she once would have mocked. Her fear of being laughed at is something she expresses openly. She is afraid we won't accept her, afraid we will be angry at her joining the Inquisition. She has, after all, suffered all those whispers and jeers in her years in Orlais.

I find it all very affecting. And it's all the more moving because this is Morrigan, our icy hedge witch, the woman who cares nothing for what others think.

Although... bullshit. Nobody cares more than Morrigan. And that's what I love about her. She craves connection. She has been taught to seem cold but she is, in fact, a warm and emotional person capable of fierce love and loyalty. If we give her the chance.

Kieran is everything Morrigan ever longed for—the family who, unlike Flemeth,
would give love back without strategy or reservation. Morrigan, to her credit,
would absolutely die for him in return, and proves this in a later scene
Morrigan and Kieran

Did you do the Dark Ritual in DAO? Or have a fling with Morrigan with your male Warden? If so, she'll return in DAI not just as an advisor, but with a mysterious and beautiful little dark-haired boy in tow, a little boy she plainly loves above all else, named Kieran. 

Kieran is a gift as a character—gentle, quiet and thoughtful, a beautiful child who echoes his mother's mysteriousness and (seemingly) her propensity for magic. And he seems to see the Inquisitor clearly and plainly—he comments poetically on the Inquisitor's origins, whether elven, Qunari, human, or dwarven. He is actually able to see into them and what the magic is doing to them. He sees the Anchor as both a good and terrible thing, and that's one of my favorite things about Kieran.

Beyond her fascinating child, Morrigan's newfound status as mother further evolves her character, and it's enormously satisfying to see. Look, I am a childless woman (deliberately so). But I respect anyone who chooses to have one, and know, as a daughter, friend and very proud aunt how profound the connections with children can be.

For me, though, Morrigan's motherhood isn't just about the cliched or magical fulfillment of a solitary woman through having a child. It is, more simply, the first time she has had someone who was hers, who loved her and was on her side, who depended on her and who allowed her both softness and love, unconditionally. 

So Kieran's not just important because he's Morrigan's child, it's because he's Morrigan's family. And one that will stay. For the first time, she has everything she ever wanted—a family, an absolute ally. Someone to love. Someone to protect. Someone to care for in perpetuity. Everything she ever wanted and needed and was starved to get. And that (tragically) she did not get from her own mother.

If you're playing the game, and you haven't played with Morrigan as a mother of Kieran, I strongly suggest you set the Dragon Age Keep to a Morrigan with a child (preferably one from the Dark Ritual) next time you play. It's enormously complex and satisfying. It's the thing that sets her forward... beyond her companionship with us, beyond Flemeth, beyond the Blight.

Mothers and Daughters

Ultimately, Morrigan is a wonderful and complex companion, and of course, Claudia Black's voice work is typically liquid, nuanced, often very funny, and moving, as well.

She's a great character, the witch men fear and want, the witch we need, the person who yearns for connections she is terrified to make. As for me, I love Morrigan. And while I mourn her choices with her daughter, I also love her horrible, intimidating, terrifying, wonderful mother, Flemeth, too. Flemeth, who is both common and divine, both earthy and airborne, a woman and a dragon, a witch and a goddess.

In the end, Morrigan may have seemed scary, and I'd assume that she is certainly so, for those who cross or threaten her. But ultimately, to me, she's actually heartbreaking, just an abused kid waiting to meet her first friend.

All the more reason that, when Morrigan cries after Flemeth not to leave her in DAI, in the Fade—and we see Flemeth's face show visible pain—it just breaks my freaking heart. I'll discuss this scene more later, but, oh, the missed opportunities. Especially if (as it appears) Flemeth dismissed Morrigan as a faulty implement and never considered the actual loss of a person, of her beautiful and brave, mercurial daughter. At least, not quite until that moment of loss and departure.

'Tis a Curious Thing...

If you like Morrigan, and yet only know her from DAI, please do play DAO—she's got a much bigger role there and her storyline is very complex and potentially touching. 

And—on a side note—I so wanted to romance Morrigan with my female Warden! Just as I'd done with Sten, I felt that with some Wardens at least, that it was a supportable headcanon that Morrigan was not just a friendship, but something more. The writing really made that connection for me, and honestly, while I liked Alistair and loved Zev, I liked Morrigan more, and the relationship felt more volatile and rich to me, more filled with potential insight and character growth.

Meanwhile, Morrigan still has a lovely moment with a befriended female Warden, where she admits to gratitude for her companionship while also alluding quietly to the fact that she is operating to some degree under false pretenses (with the Dark Ritual her ultimate goal):
Morrigan: 'Tis a curious thing. I do not know how else to describe it.
I am reminded of our first meeting in the Wilds. I had been in animal form for some time, watching your progress. I was intrigued to see such a formidable woman, obviously more potent than the men she traveled with. 
Yet I resented it when Flemeth assigned me to travel with you. I assumed that, at best, you would drive me from your company as soon as we left the Wilds.
I am aware that I have... little talent for forming friendships. To put it lightly, 'tis something I know nothing of, nor ever thought I needed. Yet when I discovered Flemeth's plans, you did not abandon me. Whatever your reasons, you fought what must have been a terrible battle without hope of real reward.
Warden: I did it because I am your friend.
Morrigan: And that is what I do not understand.
Of all of the things I could have imagined would have resulted when Flemeth told me to go with you, the very last would have been that I would find in you a friend. Perhaps even a sister.
I want you to know that while I may not always prove worthy of your friendship, I will always value it.

It's a very revealing moment, and of course what's most interesting, in typical Bioware fashion, is that in this scene it is entirely possible that your Warden and Morrigan are both lying to each other—Morrigan, about motives which she hasn't revealed, and the Warden, about the fact that (in my case, at least) she did not actually kill Flemeth at all as directed, but simply talked to her at her hut, then walked away with her Grimoire. (My canon Warden also talks to Flemeth as much as she'll allow in that scene—so much so that Flemeth hilariously tells her to stop talking and go away.)

The Night Before the End

As most know who play DAO, on the evening before the very end of the year-long struggle against the archdemon and the Blight, before the final battle that will change Thedas once again for good... Morrigan will come to the Warden with a choice. She will ask for the Dark Ritual, for either the Warden (if male) or a man in the party to come to her bed, willingly, to create a child who will both absorb the energy of the Old God (archdemon) and who will also prevent the Warden from dying automatically with the fatal blow against the monster (which is otherwise inescapable).

It's an interesting choice, and a deliberately dark and uncomfortable one. While the men in our party are certainly given the ability to choose yes or no in whether or not to sleep with Morrigan, the fact remains that, for instance, in Alistair's case, he absolutely doesn't want to do it (he and Morrigan loathe one another from the moment they meet), and will only end up doing so because the Warden asks him to. For those who romance Alistair, this leads to the most uncomfortable and tense conversation in the game story, in which the Warden is asking her lover to sleep with someone else (someone he can't stand) only because it may save his life. It's a weird situation.

Yet even before it was confirmed that this choice did not actually lead to evil, I still chose it. I felt by that point as if Morrigan (and Flemeth) were on a greater side... not making choices about men versus Darkspawn but actively making choices for the world, in a strange way—for nature, more or less. For Thedas. So I trusted that the choice was right, and so my wardens then talked to either Alistair or Loghain and went, "Look, it's up to you but I think you should do this." 

So they did. And Kieran was born, as I discovered much later in DAI.

It's interesting, though: If we don't do the Dark Ritual, Morrigan leaves, albeit with palpable sadness and grief. But... well, I get that. I don't think she's leaving because she didn't get what she wanted. I think she's leaving because she's caught between her mother and the Warden. She has risked her life (at this point, many many times) for us. She asks for recompense and is denied. So I definitely feel like her departure and actions can also be read through a more complex lens—for instance, that Morrigan does not leave simply out of pique, but that she also doesn't want to stay and watch the Warden die needlessly.

Do I think her leaving is childish and selfish? Yes. But I think Morrigan is—to a large degree—childish and selfish and cruel. I don't think she's ONLY those things, and that she is in fact capable of real love and friendship, but she's so terrified of them (and so warped by Flemeth) that she doesn't know how to handle or express them. So I still love her and find her a sad and interesting character.

Like so many characters we meet, know and love in Dragon Age, Morrigan is flawed, and guilty. But more than anything else, like most of our companions in the series, she's lonely. And that's the worst yet most seductive curse of all.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Real Hidden Question for Dragon Age 4...

Solas: I will save the elven people. Even if it means this world must die.

SPOILERS, on ALL of Dragon Age: Inquisition and Trespasser (and beyond) as always!

At the end of "Trespasser," Solas is so powerful that he could defeat
massive armies singlehandedly in a few eyeblinks (in between naps)
Now that we've taken a look at Solas's masterwork (the Veil), its slow and possibly inexorable decline, and where it stands at the end of the latest chapter of the Dragon Age story (Dragon Age: Inquisition's DLC "Trespasser"), let's return to the end of "Trespasser" in a slightly different way, in order to examine the questions about the fate of that very Veil that appear to lie before us as we dream, hope and wait for Dragon Age 4.

So here we go... We're back at the end of "Trespasser," and you've just had the Solas chat that spawned a zillion fanfics. And... well, if you're like most of us out here, no matter what your feelings about Solas or his agenda, there are some complex emotions and very specific questions that may be haunting you in this particular moment.

For instance, for me, as Solas walked away from our final, fateful chat (dressed in his, cough, fantastically hot ancient elven armor), once my Inquisitor let go of his leg I wondered the following questions:
  1. How can we dissuade Solas from tearing down the Veil?
  2. How can we defeat Solas if we can't talk him out of it?
Then I had an epiphany: Those aren't the right questions.

Because I believe (as I posted previously) the Veil is already almost certainly doomed.

Where Things Stand as of "Trespasser" (944 Dragon)

I've kept thinking about "Trespasser" and that last informative, emotionally charged conversation—a conversation that reveals who Solas is (and was), what he wants, and that emphasizes in no uncertain terms that his ultimate goal is to tear down the Veil, undoing his act of approximately 4,000 years before that inadvertently doomed his people.

This appears to set us up for a satisfyingly rich struggle in Dragon Age 4, in which we'll presumably have to counter Solas in his quest to redeem the elven people and bring back their golden age. We're even further asked to choose, specifically, what our next goal will be—to kill Solas, or to redeem him.

There's just one problem: Solas is too powerful to fight.

The God Who's Not a God (but Who's Totally a God)

This is why I think the setup of having to kill or redeem Solas at all is ultimately going to prove to be a masterful job of total misdirection.

Do I think the "kill" or "redeem" choice will be useless? No—I do think it will have real effect on how the DA4 protagonist, and possibly the returning Inquisitor, chooses to deal with Solas when they encounter him again in DA4  (I suspect our Inkies will return much as Hawke did in DAI, as featured guest companions, although I'd certainly love an actual first-person interlude).

But back to the end of "Trespasser": Look at how powerful Solas is here! He's unbeatable. The brief glimpses of his abilities that we're given at a distance, as we pursue him through the eluvians, secret valley fortresses, Darvaarad, and through the remnants of the Vir Dirthara, are staggering. As Solas battles the Qunari who are defiling his ancient hideouts and expels them from the pathways through his network of eluvians, he releases explosions of magic that are epic in diameter—they're almost atomic.

Then comes the revelation of Trespasser's final chapter, that Solas can now, like some ancient vengeful god, actually turn people to stone with a thought.

Abelas is an ancient elf who abandons his post at Mythal's Temple
after our meeting. My bet is that he joins Solas... and gets a new name
And keep in mind—this is before he takes in his final power-up—absorbing the power of the Anchor to save the Inquisitor's life.

In addition, even without his magical superpowers, Solas's list of assets is pretty formidable at this point. Let's take a look at what they are as "Trespasser" ends:
  • Assorted ancient castles and strongholds (from his hidden valley in the Vimmark Mountains to, presumably, many others connected through the eluvians)
  • Control of the Crossroads and the vast eluvian network
  • Knowledge of how to use and control the statue power sources at ancient elven shrines
  • A powerful secret force of elven spies that has evidently infiltrated all or most political circles across Thedas
  • The potential support of Abelas and the remaining ancient elven sentinels from shrines and temples across Thedas
  • The potential support of the Mythal-loyal elven spirit guardians
  • A silent, ever-growing army as elves from across Thedas flock to his banner
In other words, if you chose "Kill Solas" at the end of "Trespasser," your odds aren't exactly looking too favorable. 

Solas may claim he's not a god. But isn't that just semantics at this point? At the end of "Trespasser," even without the assets above, he's so powerful that he could destroy entire opposing armies all by himself, in between naps.

For these reasons, to me, there's just no way the main plot of Dragon Age 4 is going to be us versus Solas.

The Real Question for DA4

This is the point where it's worthwhile to go back and think about the entire trilogy of Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age II, and Dragon Age: Inquisition. In each story, a few common themes have always emerged—the struggles against evil (and corruption) from within and without; the fights against prejudice (both racial and magical), the struggle for justice in a system in which justice can be defined as multiple things by multiple people, organizations, and even religions

And percolating beneath all of this has been the persistent idea that every single one of these wars, calamities, Blights and other tragedies has physically harmed the world and weakened the Veil. And if the Veil is slightly tattered in Dragon Age: Origins from the centuries of violence, Blights, and carnage across Thedas, it is pretty much shredded to bits by the time Dragon Age: Inquisition rolls around.

To me, there's just no saving the Veil. Unless—in the best irony ever—Solas decides to help us do so.

Looking Back at the Veil's Creation 

The Chantry teaches that the Veil was erected in -3100 Ancient by the Maker. While this tallies roughly with other timelines, I definitely enjoyed picturing the look on Solas's face when he heard this assertion for the first time. Solas, however, confirms in "Trespasser" that it was he himself who created the Veil, as punishment against the Evanuris for their murder of Mythal and as his final attempt to protect the world from those tyrants among the Evanuris who were pretending godhood, enslaving their own people, and slaughtering mortals across Thedas. 

In each new single installment of the DA trilogy, we've learned more and more
about Flemeth and Mythal, whose murder inspired Solas to create the Veil.
What will we learn in DA4? (And yes, I think she'll be back.)
My picks for the Evanuris Big Bads here would include Falon'Din and Andruil, both of whom were famously bloodthirsty (and not a little crazed with power), and both of whom were also actively antagonistic to both Mythal as well as to Fen'Harel. I'd also definitely think Elgar'nan had to have been a primary antagonist (and the idea that it was Mythal's semi-divine husband who wronged her certainly ties with the stories of betrayal and rage hinted at from Flemeth, previously), as his tyrannical exploits are also mentioned specifically in the beautifully written Codices for "Trespasser," as well.

Either way, the Veil went up, the false gods were silenced, and the elves doomed, all at the very same moment. Not only did the Veil sunder the elves from their magic and immortality, I also believe it is the one thing that actually allowed humans to enter (and survive) in Thedas. It's referenced numerous times in DAI that the Veil went up before the first humans appeared in Thedas. It is therefore entirely possible that a world without a Veil would not be survivable for humans at all. The elven kingdom of Elvhenan, meanwhile, would have stood in glory for well over 5,000 years at that point. 

How ironic is it that it was Solas, of all people, who made it possible for humans to rise to greatness?

Where the Sky Was Held Back...

Skyhold's original name during the days of Elvhenan was Tarasyl'an te'las, translated roughly to "Sky-Place-Held-Back," or "the place where the sky was held back" and this pretty much confirms that this is where the creation of the Veil took place (I suspect that this was also the name of the ritual Solas accomplished in doing so, as well). Solas also confirms that it was once his castle (interestingly, only admitting this to a low-approval Inquisitor). So, as I've noted elsewhere, Solas's arrival at Skyhold is not only a homecoming for him, it's him literally returning to the site of his greatest act and most terrible regret.

Where was Solas while he was in uthenera at Skyhold? My bet is that he
wrapped himself in spells, hid himself in the depths, and haunted the dreams
of those who attempted to occupy the Keep for long...
Solas's creation of the Veil millennia back was a feat of prodigious magical skill. It's no wonder, then, that the act of doing so blasted the foundations of Skyhold, depleted his powers and sent him into a sleep of millennia. While Solas implies it was a sleep of a thousand years, it seems as if it was actually over 4000... unless he awakened occasionally? That's my theory—that he awakened, roamed the Fade, watched movies, had the occasional fling with a spirit, and maybe occasionally walked within the consciousnesses of mortal elves (like perhaps Shartan).

This is also a good time to ask... where was Solas in uthenera at Skyhold, which was occupied many times during those millennia? My bet is that he wrapped himself in spells and hid himself in the depths. I also think he was able, while dreaming in the Fade, to frighten the dreams of those who occupied the castle, perhaps giving local dreamers a taste of the Dread Wolf and, ahem, encouraging them to depart. This would also explain why Skyhold never seemed to stay occupied for long, and if the occupiers tended to leave in a hurry, this would also account for why there's so much beautiful, usable stuff around the castle when our faithful team arrives there.

Either way, Solas enacted his vengeance, wrapped himself in shadows, and slept for millennia. And even as he did so, the Veil almost immediately began to weaken and decay.

It's an interesting thought to realize that Solas created the Veil, then slept through all its best years. It's like he gave someone a comfy blanket, took a nap, then woke up and the blanket had been ripped, torn, gnawed, and nearly destroyed in the meantime.

Either way, the Veil is in pretty dire shape. So what next? And can it be saved?

Tarasyl'an te'las Redux?

This brings me back to my original epiphany: As "Trespasser" ends, the implication is that we must find a way to stop Solas.

But to me that's richly ironic. From what I can see of the Veil's current situation, there's absolutely no saving it. In other words, Solas actually doesn't have to do a thing to return the world to the state of its former Fadetastic glories... except sit back and wait.

I don't think Solas is going to be very happy with the choices
before him in Dragon Age 4
Which is why I'm convinced that this is all a deliberate and brilliant piece of misdirection by the Dragon Age writers. The writers are waving those shiny, shiny questions at us off over there... when we really need to be looking over here.

In other words, to me, no matter what the Inquisitor does to try to assuage the damage to the Veil going forward, there's no way to strengthen what Solas created, or to save it...

Unless Solas decides to do so himself. 

To me, there's a beautiful irony and symmetry to the idea—that the one person in all of Thedas who could actually save the Veil is the very man who is determined to tear it down.

And I think Solas will save the Veil, after (I'm guessing) another huge conflict to shake Thedas to its foundations. My personal bet for the next Big Bad isn't Solas, but one of the Evanuris or Forgotten Ones, with maybe some new revelations about the Titans, and along with some massive upheavals as both Tevinter and the Qunari make their moves to try to conquer the world once and for all. Meanwhile, I suspect that Solas will haunt the perimeter of DA4, judging and watching, perhaps even subtly helping the Inquisition (or whatever the new movement calls itself). Then I think he'll finally choose a side—ours. And that he will then use those incredible powers of his to recreate a brand-new Veil, this one perhaps even stronger than before. 

I don't think he'll survive it (I hope I'm wrong). But that's my bet. 

Of course, I could be absolutely and hilariously mistaken about all of this. But what do you think?

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Paradox of the Wounded Veil

Solas: Great battles thin the Veil. This region will be home to demons for ages to come.

NOTE: For an updated and expanded map of Veil weakness (and additional analysis), please visit my later follow-up piece here.

At the current pause in our story of Thedas after both Dragon Age: Inquisition (DAI) and "Trespasser," as of 944 Dragon, the Veil is the object at the very center of some of the biggest and most urgent questions now connected to the fate of its world and peoples. 

So in this post, let's take a closer look at the Veil—at what it is, how it works, and at what its state appears to be as our story stands now.

The State of the Veil

As most Dragon Agers know, the Veil is the artificial, metaphysical barrier that separates the physical world of Thedas from the magical dream world of the Fade. 

While it's mostly referred to in metaphor as if it was a fabric separating the worlds, it's actually more of a magical vibration that covers Thedas. On the real-world side are physical beings, like elves, humans, dwarves, Qunari and others. On the other side, in the Fade, are metaphysical, spiritual beings like spirits and demons, and dream-consciousnesses.

According to various sources (Vivienne, the Chantry, and implications from Solas himself), the Veil was created before humans ever touched Thedas. And, perhaps somewhat ironically, it's what enables the current world of Thedas to continue to function in a logical way several ages later. It's also, presumably, at least one part of the magical construct that has imprisoned both the arrogant, tyrannical Evanuris and The Forgotten Ones in separate, millennia-long, time-outs.

But most importantly, the Veil allows each side of that barrier to exist in relative peace, keeping the physical world on one side and the dangers of the Fade precariously upon the other. 

The Allure and Danger of the Fade

Infinitely close (just a dream away) yet eternally distant, the Fade is a complex landscape—dangerous, alien and hostile, yet it's also beautiful and seductive. It's the home of all the purely spiritual beings, including demons, ghosts and maybe even the souls of Thedas (and perhaps of worlds beyond). It's also where the selves of mages and dreamers go each night when they sleep (only dwarves do not visit the Fade, except in the case of a dwarven Inquisitor, whose Anchor connecting them to Fade energies allows them to do so on a limited basis).

Most crucially, perhaps, the Fade is also the essence and source of all magic. So mortal beings with magical abilities are all slightly connected to it (or near to it) at all times, and must learn to consciously manage and finesse those connections to manifest their spells and powers. Yet they must also do so without opening a wide enough channel to allow the entrance of demons—when this happens, in an event known as "Abomination," the mage is immediately possessed and transformed by a powerful demon, and must then be killed before further catastrophe or bloodshed can take place (Abominations have been known to be powerful enough to decimate entire villages). The possibility and fear of Abomination is the single biggest reason for the existence of the Mage Circles (and wary Templars) across Thedas.

Despite its dangers, I've loved the idea of the Fade since the moment I heard it, and to me it's the metaphorical home of artists, thinkers, writers, and dreamers... in Thedas, and everywhere else. I love the idea of a communal, creative, and infinitely accessible dream world and wellspring—it's quite Jungian.

Of course, it's worth noting that the Fade is also the place where Solas just happens to spend most of his time as its magical king and ruler; the place where Solas's power is at its height. Solas doesn't just walk the Fade, after all—he can work with its substance, craft and warp its very air like clay, and create whole new environments for those he interacts with there—settings that can be both seductive, or, perhaps... terrifying? 

There's still so much to learn.

The World Before the Veil

And this is how it's been for ages of men... at least, since the world before (-3100 Ancient, or around 4,000 years before the Dragon Age setting of 941 Dragon as Inquisition begins). 

Many thousands of years or no, the Veil is still a relative and recent anomaly, a magical framework the world has battled to kill ever since. Since the time when magic was a part of life, when magic was as unconscious as breathing, as Solas notes to the Inquisitor early on at Haven:

“Imagine... spires of crystal twining through the branches, palaces floating among the clouds. Imagine beings who lived forever, for whom magic was as natural as breathing. That is what was lost.”

The Fade is a nightmare to some. But almost never, I suspect, to Solas.
I always love this moment because it's one of the times Solas shows the greatest emotion—he actually speaks quickly and loudly, almost shouting. It's fun to revisit the scene (especially after "Trespasser") and realize that he totally gives himself away here on a number of levels. 

Yet his desperation is both tragic and understandable. Solas is, after all, half-drowning and barely out of panic mode. What happens when you lose the air... yet you're somehow still alive and breathing? This is the tormented reality Solas is living during DAI, and it's implied that his only relief is found in his romance or friendship with Lavellan, in his brief period of friendship with his adventuring companions (especially Cole), or most of all when he can revisit those past glories in his journeys in The Fade. 

Walking in "a World of Tranquil"

The people of Thedas are, of course, used to the protective muffler of The Veil. But to Solas it feels oppressive and suffocating—I actually wonder if a physical side effect of this disconnection is why it takes him such a long time to regain his powers upon awakening. After all, he no longer has access to the magic that he could once have pulled from the very air. Now he's got to access tiny tendrils of magic through the barrier of the Veil into the Fade, stuck high and dry like everyone else. 

This is why it makes so much sense that Solas is not a remarkable mage at this point—not just because he's still weak from his long sleep even a year after his awakening, but because he's also literally having to relearn magic in a world in which the magic has been locked away. The progression as he reattains that power is especially notable (and subtly perfect) when he attains Rift Mage status at Skyhold. (I further headcanon that he continues to grow in power and capability from there, but that he hides his abilities, successfully, for the most part.) It also explains his prodigious abilities in the Fade even weakened and still awakening, as in the Fade there would be little to no recovery needed. He can and does kill there (with regret, and with impunity) as the god he is.

In other words, when we first meet Solas, in fact, in the Frostbacks, he's still arguably in the throes of PTSD, and walking in a muted, horrified silence, passing through, as he describes it, "a world of Tranquil."

It's a pretty grim idea when you think about it, and it definitely gives me some empathy for the somewhat proud, prickly and distant Solas we meet at the beginning of DAI. But if you explore it further, Solas's words also give us an idea of how fiery, emotional and passionate the elven people must have been in the ancient days of Solas's youth. No wonder he tells the Inquisitor he loves her after just two kisses (albeit there's a year of potential interaction to precede that, including subtle implications of many other interactions and conversations, as well)... Solas comes from a time in which passions and tempers both burned hot and fierce.

Of course, the down side of all that emotion was that, in Elvhenan, you not only had access to wonders untold, you also had arguments that lasted centuries, lovers who frolicked openly in the skies for years, and would-be gods who slaughtered and enslaved their own people out of their need for conquest and adulation. But it would still have been extraordinary to witness. (Note: my family has notoriously had arguments that lasted for years too, but that's just because we're Scottish... no magic required...)

Meanwhile, this is what Solas has taken away... from his people, and from himself. But for Solas to fix his mistake, for him to redeem his past actions and rescue his people... for them to breathe that heady mixture of magic and air again? No matter how much he abhors the idea... this world must burn. 

But I'm betting it won't.

The Separate Worlds of Magic and Muscle

For the most part, living beings and spiritual beings cannot pass through the Veil very easily, so each is mostly stuck to living on one side. Every rare while, spirits are called or push through benignly, like Cole (or... Solas? But more on that another time...) to gain physical form. And once in a rare while, living beings survive actual, physical time in the Fade—like the Inquisitor, after the Temple explosion. And again (with their companions), after Adamant.

Ultimately, more or less, as far as the Veil's functionality is concerned—it works as designed. It's nearly impossible for spirits nor mortal beings, for the most part, to pass physically through the Veil, so each side is protected from the other. 

The consciousnesses of most mortal dreamers and all mages are a different matter (though the average dreamer is unlikely to ever be more than vaguely aware of such 'travels').  Elven Dreamers or Tevinter somniari can come and go at will, while elves in uthenera exist there in a constant wave of color, knowledge and impression. Mages visit more warily, most of the time in their tests of magical skill (for Circle Mages, the test known as the Harrowing). 

The Wounded Veil

As the main storyline of Dragon Age: Inquisition progresses, the health of the Veil is a constant source of discussion—logically, of course, since we're walking around healing Rifts with our Inquisitorial superpowers.

However, let's take another look at the subtext of DAI. At first, all the talk of the Veil seems to be focused on the Rifts. But that's not actually the case. Instead, as we journey across Thedas and the story moves forward, we're constantly made aware that the Veil itself is thin and fragile in hundreds of spots, and furthermore, actually torn everywhere, in a thousand places—places of battle, of Blight, of great death or dying. And every time, spirits cluster at these places, hungering to enter our world.

The skies above Thedas in DAI are as torn and frayed as the Veil itself.
These thin or weakened places in the Veil can evidently be sensed with a greenish tint to the air—something poor Tamlen references in Dragon Age: Origins, in the Dalish Elf origin, also explaining that the Dalish call such thin places in the Veil setheneran (which roughly translates to, "land of waking dreams"). Sera also hesitantly echoes this idea in multiple ways when she describes what she sees to Solas later on, in DAI, when he encourages her to describe what she sees when she looks up into the Breach. Elves who visit areas where the Veil is thin may feel energized and strengthened, and Solas implies this as well, in his scene with a romanced Inquisitor in the ancient elven shrine in Crestwood.

Speaking of which: It's somewhat ironic, but I can't help but wonder if that lovely and subtly thrilling presence of the thin Veil may not have been the very thing that ultimately doomed the Inquisitor's relationship with Solas, right there and then. Solas comments on the wonderful, charged quality to the air, like "a prickling on your skin," and I can't help but wonder if this tantalizing glimpse of his former world (in which he felt more awake and alive) didn't subtly remind him of his real quest... and strengthen him enough to end his relationship with the Inquisitor he deeply cared for.

Veil Damage at a Glance

As Solas notes repeatedly throughout Dragon Age: Inquisition, the Veil is thinner, weaker or downright torn in places that have encountered extensive battle, magic, or death (especially blood magic). The Veil is evidently thinner at night than by day, and the thin spots are further weakened by spirits and demons who press against those places, attracted by the violence and death that took place.

If you take a look at the rather clumsy infographics I've created here in the image at top (using the map of Thedas courtesy of Bioware and the Dragon Age Wiki as my base), I've attempted to give a snapshot of the Veil's health as it stands now (944 Dragon) at the end of the events of "Trespasser." (Update: Again, please be sure to check out my updated version of this map here.)

That snapshot attempts to provide a look at just how damaged the Veil actually is—in not just dozens but potentially hundreds of locations across Thedas. 

Note: I want to thank the following Dragon Age community members on social media for their generous insights and suggestions on identifying and notating Veil tears and thin spots across Thedas, including, on Twitter: @LadyIolanthe@JoGirlieGirl@ImaSithDuh and @Idunasappl, as well as, from the Dragon Age Universe, Steve Cornelius, Vernon Swain-Nisbet, Sarah Chung, Michael Sawyer, and more. 

Notable Instances of (Heavily Implied) or Confirmed Veil Damage:

Rift locations across all of Southern Thedas
Locations Across Tevinter (wherever blood magic was used in large amounts)
Darkspawn entrances or exits
Major Blight locations
Marnas Pell
Brecilian Forest
Fereldan Circle Tower
Soldier's Peak
The Breach (Frostback Mountains)
Giant spider locations (Storm Coast, Kirkwall, The Western Approach, The Forbidden Oasis, The Hinterlands, The Hissing Wastes, Crestwood, The Emerald Graves)
Felandaris areas (Emprise du Lion—especially Suledin Keep and Pools of the Sun—the Arbor Wilds, the Frostback Basin)
And many more

Additional Mage Circle Locations

Lake Calenhad
Val Royeaux

And let's not forget Dalish encampments (hard to track due to their secretive and wandering ways), plus all those little bloody spots on my infographic... which detail every single place I could document across Thedas as offering battles or bloodshed at catastrophic levels. When we factor those into our portrait of the Veil, it's almost impossible to find a place that would be conceivably strong. 

The creation of the Veil was an act of almost unthinkable strength, accomplished by a mage at the height of his powers. But it was nevertheless the act of just one man, no matter how extraordinary, and it has permanently changed and warped a world in which it was never meant to exist at all.

Meanwhile,  beyond all of the damage I've detailed here, that Veil has also deteriorated, year after year, in several other implied and subtle ways since its creation. 

Take a look at this pure contrast graphic version I did of the Veil chart above, now reversed below. It details major damage only, not including the potential thousands of additional weak spots that presumably exist, as well.

If this was a roof, you couldn't sleep under it. If it was a blanket, you'd throw it away.

The point I'm getting to here is a simple one: The Veil wasn't meant to last forever. And currently, it's doomed. It's not just wounded, it's on life support (support provided, rather ironically and repeatedly, by Solas himself, along with those mystifying "ancient elven artifacts." When I first played DAI, I thought Solas was trolling us with those... but what if they were, in fact, placed across Thedas because he realized the Veil was fragile? Because he knew it was something that would need to be strengthened and maintained in order to function? If this is the case, then his relief at knowing "the wards are working" isn't hypocrisy anymore, it's genuine.

Based on the information I've presented here, with or without a scattering of artifacts—and with or without Solas eventually yanking the whole thing down like a magician pulling a tablecloth—I think the Veil is doomed. 

So what happens next? Well, now that you mention it... let's examine those possibilities. Because I think they're less obvious than they seem... but that's my next blog post. And you can read it here!

Meanwhile, did I miss anything? Please share your thoughts on the state of the Veil in the comments, and let me know if there are locations I didn't cover in my chart here, as I'll be continuing to update it periodically!

"Dragon Age: Dreadwolf" Predictions & Ponderings (and "What's in a Name?" Redux)

He doesn't call, he doesn't write, but finally, it looks like we might be hearing from Solas at last (2023?), as BioWare announces t...